The campsite was laid out in our usual Sears family way. The tent had been set up on the highest piece of ground my Dad could find in the rented campsite, far enough away from the fire area that no one had to worry about embers hitting the tent and far enough under trees as to provide much needed shade. My Dad would always bring extra stakes and ropes to secure the tent and rain canopy – experiences of camping in heavy rains had apparently taught him to do this – which created a ready made obstacle course for my two brothers and me.
It was my birthday, but I don’t remember which one. Truth of the matter is that Dad’s vacation fell on my birthday so often in my early years that I thought camping was something you were required to do on your birthday. That is, until I realized that we were always home in February and October for my brother’s birthday celebrations. But this was normal for me.
It was still light out but we had eaten dinner and even a cake of some sort and were really just relaxing for the evening. My younger brother was making use of the obstacle course. Mom, my older brother and I were sitting at the picnic table playing a game of “Sorry!”. Why we took board games on camping trips was beyond me at that time. I’m guessing it cut down on the number of times Mom had to yell at us for chasing one another around the tent or fire. It was also a good time waster. Dad was working on getting a fire ready for the evening.
I don’t recall what we were snacking on, probably chips or pretzels, and soft drinks. It was my turn to move in the game and my older brother was getting impatient but my attention had turned to a squirrel in one of the trees near us. I had been watching a lot of squirrels simply because I was hoping to see a “flying squirrel”. To that point, I’d just seen a lot of acrobatic ones. Still my attention was in the trees when my Mom suddenly began slamming the table, knocking the “Sorry!” game pieces all over the place and spilling her bright pink can of TaB. She wasn’t really making any noise but it looked like she was coughing. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on at the time.
Now, just to put this in it’s proper historical time, this was taking place before the widespread implementation of the Heimlich Maneuver. Heck, it might have even been before the maneuver itself was introduced. I don’t recall the exact birthday but it had to be around 1975. I might have been ten years old, but I doubt it.
So, here we are, a family of five, with one in obvious distress at picnic table in some state park in WV. One boy running around a tent and jumping over and crawling under the various sets of ropes holding down a tent and rain canopy. Two other boys looking stunned, glancing back and forth between a ruined board game, a dripping diet soda, and a mother acting very strange. And a father getting a campfire ready for roasting marshmallows.
My Dad stepped away from the fire building, walked up behind my Mom and said, “Do you need a hit?” and then without even waiting for answer, hauls off and smacks her in the back with the flat of his hand with so much force that she went sprawling across the table, the Sorry! board, and the spilled TaB. I don’t know if the pretzels fell victim to the sprawl or not.
Mom came up from the “hit” with just about the same force she had taken – proof to my young mind that every action has an opposite and equal reaction – and screamed at my Dad, “Well, what did you ask me for if you weren’t going to wait for an answer!”
Somehow, the whole thing became outrageously funny at that moment and both Mom and Dad began laughing and the rest of us stunned observers, who were still not sure what had happened joined in.
The evening went on. I got to have the first S’more of the night because it was my birthday. We sat around the campfire as always and were told “once, if not a thousand times” not to get so close to the fire. We laughed and sang and sometimes just got quiet. But every once in a while the breeze would snatch up enough smoke and billow it towards someone that they would cough. Inevitably someone else would say, “Do you need a hit?” and the coughing person would yell “NO!” and everyone would crack up.
In fact, it became such a joke in our family that I can remember my Dad, coughing in a hospital bed during his last week of life, smiling and shaking his head “no” when I asked him, “Do you need a hit?”
That little phrase seemed to carry us back to the woods, the tent, the sticky s’mores the squirrels, the wood smoke, and the fun.
Some words are like that. They evoke such powerful memory that they take us back to something that is more than just a memory, more than just a fading thought. They evoke time, place, event, with such Gemüt that reality itself is evoked anew.
In my family, “Do you need a hit?” still does that.
My other family, the one that I journey with towards that “home” we do not know yet, has a few too.
“This is the body…broken…”
“I was glad when they said to me…”
“Peace be with you.”
“He is risen…”
“In the beginning…”
And I thought it was just going to be another summer camping trip taking place around my birthday. Who knew?